When Nepal's parliament was assembling to elect a new prime minister in July, very few people noticed that Sharada Nepali, a 39-year-old lawmaker from a minor party, was missing. Away from the television cameras and the excitement in the house, Nepali, a mother of six, was grappling with death in a city hospital; she had tried to kill herself by drinking carbolic acid.
And yet, her life is at first sight a modest rags-to-riches story. Nepali belongs to the Dalit community that is still regarded as untouchable in Nepal and she never went to school. Her home is in Bardiya district, which falls in the remote west and is one of the most disadvantaged. And yet, despite the odds, she was nominated to the parliament by the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist Leninist in 2008 and was on the Parliamentary Committee for Women, Children and Social Welfare.
What went wrong for the woman who managed to get herself elected, reach the capital from an obscure village, and became a part of the nation's voice? "I could not handle it anymore," said the tearful politician, lying on her spartan hospital bed. "There was too much pressure from my family and the party. I was mentally tortured by my husband (Ravi Lal) for not handing over my entire salary as a Member of Parliament (MP) to him. I couldn't do that since my party was paying me just a fraction of the money we are allotted by the government. When I raised the issue, the party threatened to sack me."
Nepali's bid to kill herself is no isolated incident. According to the police, every month, 15 to 20 women commit suicide either by hanging, drinking poison or drowning in rivers.
The first alarm was sounded by the Department of Health Services in January this year, when it published a study on the deaths of women of reproductive age. The Maternal Mortality and Morbidity (MMM) study, conducted from April 2008 to 2009 by the Family Health Division, came up with a shocking finding. "There has been a dramatic increase in the contribution of suicide to deaths of women in the reproductive age - 16 per cent as compared with 10 per cent in 1998," it noted. "This makes it the leading single cause of death... in 1998 it was the third."
Of the 1,496 women of reproductive age who died in the study districts during the survey period, 25 per cent succumbed to "external causes", while in 1998 the number was 13 per cent. "This change was largely due to the increase in suicides," the study revealed. "Suicide was far in the lead, with the second leading cause, accidents, accounting for nine per cent. The shocking finding... highlights the urgent need to address this issue, which has received little attention. Research is needed to improve understanding of the circumstances and contributory factors of these tragic events, to guide interventions." Since the study covers just eight of Nepal's 75 districts - roughly 12 per cent of the nearly 28 million population - the actual overall suicide rate could well be higher.
The study lists mental health problems, relationships, marriage and family issues as the key factors leading to suicides among women. Of the cases studied, 21 were aged 18 years and under.
A fifth factor, not mentioned by the report, is poverty. This year alone, there have been cases of group suicides. In July, a woman whose husband had abandoned her with their three young children to work in Saudi Arabia tried to kill herself and her children. By a cruel twist of fate, while the three children, aged 11, nine and seven, drowned after being thrown into the Bagmati River in southern Nepal, rescuers managed to pull out the mother, Sibati Chaudhury, who survived.
Sometimes the line between suicide and actual murder is blurred. Nainkala Thapa, chair of the National Women's Commission, says there are also growing cases of family members killing a woman and then trying to make it look like suicide.
Thapa cites the case of Laxmi Bohara, 28. A human rights worker in Kanchanpur, Bohara, was a victim of domestic violence. A mother of three, she was repeatedly abused and beaten up by her husband, Tek Raj Bohara, and mother-in-law Dhana Devi, for taking part in campaigns for women's rights. Kanchanpur in farwest Nepal, according to the National Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders, has the highest number of domestic violence cases, especially over dowry, with two to three cases reported every day.
On June 6, Bohara was severely assaulted by her husband, who then rushed her to hospital, claiming she had taken poison. "Human rights activists believe she was beaten to death and the poison was poured down her throat to make it look like suicide," says Thapa. "A complaint has been lodged with the police, saying it was murder and not suicide."
"Suicides are rising in Nepal because, unlike in India, we have no law to punish abettors," says Durga Singh, inspector at the women's cell of Nepal Police. "Making someone's life so miserable that she chooses death as a release - for instance, in suicides over dowry - is a crime in India. But in Nepal, if someone kills herself it is she alone who is held responsible for her death."
However, things are likely to change with Nepal's law and justice ministry readying to overhaul the legal system. One and a half years ago, human rights defenders lobbied for a law to punish the abettors who drove a victim to suicide. Legal activist Meera Dhungana, an associate of Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), an NGO campaigning for the abolition of gender-biased laws, and the Lok Hari Bashyal filed a public interest litigation seeking up to five years' imprisonment for those forcing a person to commit suicide.
Unknown to the lawyers, the law and justice ministry was then already working on the draft for such a law and so, although the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, the team drafting the new legal code made a note of the activists' plea for a five-year jail term for a suicide abettor. "Now, our draft is ready," says Raju Mansingh Malla, spokesman at the ministry. "A panel headed by Supreme Court judge Kalyan Shrestha has drafted a new penal code for Nepal that also includes a provision to punish suicide abetting with a fine, or a maximum five-year jail term or both. However, if people seek a longer jail term, the government is ready to consider that."
The draft for the suicide act was tabled before the council of ministers in May. Five days later, the cabinet approved of the draft and asked the ministry to circulate it among different ministries, courts as well as other stakeholders and ask for their opinions and suggestions within three months. "We will then incorporate suggestions and send the amended draft back to the ministry," says Malla. "The quantum of fine will be decided after receiving stake holders' views. We hope to submit the amended draft before the cabinet by October."
However, activists want more. FWLD chief and MP, Sapana Pradhan Malla, says the government also needs to heed media reports of Nepali women working abroad committing suicide at an alarming rate. Her comment comes after it was reported that 15 women working as domestic help in Lebanon killed themselves due to ill treatment.
"How long do we have to go on reading about women killing themselves due to lack of options, clear laws and policies by the government and their implementation?" Pradhan Malla wrote in an impassioned article in the Kantipur daily. "How long do we have to go on waiting to receive women's bodies?"
By arrangement with WFS